Oil, Geo-Political Experts Say Attacking Iran Poses Huge Risks

As a bastion of foreign-policy realism, the Center for the National Interest (CNI), formerly the Nixon Center, is known around Washington for hosting very lively discussions among experts, and Friday’s session, entitled “War With Iran: Economic and Military Considerations”, was particularly engaging, and virtually unanimous — and almost unanimously scary — in its conclusions.

The three presenters were Adm. Mark Fitzgerald, who served as deputy commander of U.S. Naval Forces, Central Command and commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe, among many other posts; Geoffrey Kemp, a CNI fellow who served as a Gulf expert on Reagan’s National Security Council; and J. Robinson West, the chairman and founder of PFC Energy who has also held senior positions in the White House, the Energy Department, and the Pentagon under various Republican administrations. Kemp, it should be noted, is working on a major study, due to be released in January, on the issue that was under discussion.

Of the three, West’s assessment was particularly grim. He asserted that Iran, with its arsenal of ballistic and shorter-range missiles and the Revolutionary Guards’ (IRGC) elite Qods Force, could without much difficulty take more than eight million barrels of oil a day off the market — specifically 5 million barrels from Saudi Aramco’s Abqaiq facility and the pipelines that run to the Ras Tannurah terminal on the Gulf just across from Iran (the missiles, he said, may not be too accurate, but “something is going to hit something); another 2.5 million barrels that run through southern Iraq where “the Iranians have a lot of agents” who could presumably wreak havoc on the pipelines; and as much as another one million more barrels that are pumped from the Caspian Sea to Ceyhan, Turkey, on the Mediterranean. (“If Iranians have agents on the ground, these pipelines are very vulnerable,” he said.)

“You could lose eight million barrels a day of production, and it would not come back quickly,” according to West. “We believe the price of oil will go above $200 a barrel,” he said. (Brent crude is currently selling at about $112/barrel.) Moreover, he added, that conclusion does not take account of any Iranian effort to block the Strait of Hormuz (an eventuality which, he said, he believed the US Navy could clean up quite quickly) or the possibility that Tehran may also use its missiles to strike the huge LNG facilities in Qatar. If they did, “the lights go out in South Korea and Japan,” he said.

“From my standpoint, the cost would be just enormous,” West said. “For them to tie up the oil business wouldn’t be that difficult.” Echoing Kemp, who had spoken just before, he predicted that Washington will come under great pressure from “people on our side” to stop the war.

Fitzpatrick said he agreed “completely” with West’s assessment regarding the vulnerability of the oil infrastructure in the Gulf and Iraq and also stressed the vulnerability of tanker traffic both in the Gulf and through the Strait of Hormuz (especially compared to 25 years ago during the “tanker war”). While the U.S. Navy can deploy some defenses against Iran’s sea-skimming missiles that travel almost at Mach speed, he said, tankers are helpless against them. “[The Iranians] are able to hold critical geography at risk,” he said, adding that the biggest problem U.S. forces would face would be a “bolt out of the blue” by which he meant a unilateral Israeli attack with little or no notice to the U.S. Once hostilities began under those circumstances, he said, Iran can be expected to move its mines into position, and “one mine makes a minefield.” They would also disperse their ballistic and anti-ship missiles very quickly, he said, making it far easier for them to strike back in the Gulf and beyond.

As to the cooperation Washington would get from its Gulf allies, “obviously, they are more pro-U.S. than most of the countries we deal with, at least the leadership,” he said. “The problem we will have is with the populace.” Moreover, in order to secure the Strait, it’s almost certain you would have to put “boots on the ground,” at least on the three islands that lie in or close to the Strait. “This is going to be a messy war to win fast,” he said, noting that it took NATO 78 days of bombing to break Milosevic’s will in Serbia, which is “postage-stamp size” compared to Iran’s territory. “If the [Iranian] people believe they’re right, they’re going to hunker down,” he said, adding that he was quite uncertain “how would we make Iran capitulate.”

(The general sense of the participants in the discussion, who included other experts in their own right, was there was no way to “win” the war — meaning, eliminating Iran’s nuclear program — without occupying the country. “Militarily, you’re back to Desert Storm at a minimum,” said Fitzpatrick, who noted that U.S. troops in that conflict used Saudi Arabia as their launching pad. “To get to Iran, you’d have to go through either Pakistan or Iraq,” he noted. “I don’t think we’d be able to come through Iraq,” he asserted. “Then we’d be fighting two wars.”)

Kemp focused primarily on the larger strategic consequences of an attack on Iran. If the U.S. and/or Israel launched the attack, he said, “we can expect extremely strong opposition from Russia, China, Brazil, and even India. ….I do worry that we have not clearly thought through how some of our allies might behave”, he added, recalling, in particular, Germany’s opposition to the 2003 Iraq invasion, and Turkey, which also declined U.S. requests to use its territory as a launching pad into Iraq but is now close to war with Iran’s major ally in the region, Syria.

Moreover, “if we get involved in yet another war in the Middle East, what’s going to happen to the ‘rebalance’ in Asia” in what is a critical moment in that region, especially if we have to pay for it with dollars borrowed from China?

Ultimately, he suggested, the financial costs inflicted by such a war may force Washington to back down, much as Britain and France were forced to withdraw from Egypt during the 1956 Suez War when then-President Dwight Eisenhower threatened London with a run on the pound if the European powers did not withdraw.

Dmitri Simes, the former head of the Nixon Center and noted Kremlinologist, warned that an attack on Iran would be a “game-changer” in relations among the great powers. Russia, which he last visited earlier this month, was likely to react particularly harshly, he predicted — not only by lifting its own sanctions against Iran, but also quite possibly expediting the long-delayed sale to Tehran of its highly-touted S-400 anti-aircraft missiles systems, in addition to renewing cooperation on Iran’s nuclear program. If U.S. and/or Israeli attack on Iran lasted more than a day or so, “you are opening a Pandora’s box” in terms of Russia’s and possibly China’s response, he warned.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.



  1. Finally a sober and realistic assessment instead of moronic beating of war drums by ignorant blood thirsty warmongers.

  2. Thoughtful. There are two main reasons for the war already not having taken place, none of them altruistic:
    1 – The cost benefit analyis as Jim puts it eloquently.
    2 – Wariness of Israel and its supporters to put to test the commitment of the “populace” in America to Israel. When it is just money and political support with little blowback everyone is willing to support the jewish state. But when it comes to pocket book and severe economic consequences, nobody knows if the unconditional support will be still there. All bets are off. May be there will be and the patriotic feelings of Americans will stifle any discussion. But this may be short-termed and even small sign of dissent questioning the unconditional support may turn into a torrent. In the age of twitter, this is a distinct possibility and zionists and necons know they are in unknown territory with lots of risk. Will they take the chance?

  3. All I can say is that I think it would probably rank as the dumbest decision in the history of the world. It is absolutely certain (barring the complete capitulation of Iran) that the world oil supply will be disrupted and that everyone in the world must pick a side and the Bush dictum that “you are either for us, or against us” will be a truism. Disruption of the energy supply will endanger everyone almost instantly. Lehman Brothers’ collapse brought the world to the brink and surely that must be the equivalent of picking up a quarter off the ground compared to this.

    I cannot imagine all the great powers of the world remaining neutral thereby allowing the US to impose a “stranglehold” on the world’s energy supply which the US could then use to threaten them (assuming they even could do this). Make no mistake, attacking Iran will be the opening shot of World War Three and the US and its allies will lose (and so will the other side). The only question will be – how badly would they lose. Considering that China could completely destroy the US by using a piece of paper (stating they have abandoned the US dollar) it is hard to see how the US could prevail in real hostilities. A trade embargo by China would deprive the US of virtually every manufactured good and the military industrial complex would grind to a halt – not to mention the anarchy it would create on the homefront as well. Like I said if this triggered global economic collapse and/or WW3 it would be the greatest error ever made by anyone at any time, but unfortunately huge miscalculations have been the hallmark predictor of the collapse of a great empire. Technological grandiosity, magical thinking, and hubris all blind the empire just before the fall. The difference this time is that the US is the truly global empire and that no one will be immune from the effects. Hopefully sanity prevails and that the inevitable economic contraction is accepted and managed on the way down, but I doubt it.

  4. Iran has no reason, historical or otherwise to meddle into it’s neighbors affairs. That is if the neighbors do not pose a threat to Iran by giving military bases to the US or West, who in turn want to control the OIL traffic to it’s own advantage. The west(read USA) is trying to raise the bogey of Iran’s threat again like they did in Iraq,raising the WMD’s issue which was’nt even there & never proved. I hope the world can see through this farce,which they do but like in Iraq they are helpless or want to be silent spectators when thousands of innocent lives will be lost in the name of collateral damage, like what is presently being done through drone strikes in Pakistan.

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